Seeing from the Cross

Click here to listen to this 18-minute message.

Today is Good Friday – a poorly named day in my view. It should be Dark Friday. The Passion Week is transformed to good on Easter Sunday, but not before. There is nothing good about Friday. But my opinion is unlikely to change centuries of tradition!

Today, at my Anglican community church in Irene, South Africa, we participate in a three-hour service, from 12pm to 3pm – the hours that Jesus hung on the cross. It is a kind of vigil, like the women who kept watch as Jesus hung there. It is one of the best attended services at our church, and most people stay the full time. Today, we used the Seven Last Words of Christ to structure our service. The priest, deacon and lay ministers shared the preaching. I preached on the passage from John 19:25-27, where Jesus says “Woman, behold! Your son. … Behold! Your mother.” (my translation).

The central thing that stands out for me is that Jesus SEES his mother and his friend (thought to be John, the disciple). And seeing them and their need, he invites them to SEE each other (the Greek for ‘behold’, or ‘here’ in other translations, means ‘Look!’ or ‘See!’). So, in this sermon I suggest four layers of meaning:

  1. The passage foregrounds the humanity, dignity and worth of women, as central to the story. We need to stand against patriarchy, violence against women, the silencing and marginalisation of women, the exploitation of girl children.
  2. The passage speaks about Jesus’ commitment to family and to intimate relationships. We need to invest in these relationships, in the domestic, because this is of interest to God.
  3. The passage suggests the great potential of the church to recreate the world. We should examine our own churches, asking if we are really doing what God wants us to, are we being who God wants us to be?
  4. The passage advances God’s concern and love for the whole of humanity. God sees us, knows us, recognises us, loves us, champions us, cries for us. And we should also.

Wishing you a blessed and joyful Easter 2016.
Adrian

P.S. I struggled to find a picture that depicts what Jesus would have seen from the cross. The arts are almost entirely focused on Jesus on the cross – rightly so. But I found this one by James Tissot, a French painter, painted in c. 1890. For those receiving this by email, you won’t see the featured image for each of my sermons. Follow the link to my blog to see them.

When the World goes Mad

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Sometimes, the world seems to be going mad. On the morning of the day I preached this sermon, two terrorist attacks in Brussels left 31 or so people dead. IS claimed responsibility. Attacks like these, like the multiple attacks in Paris in 2015, make us afraid and want to withdraw from the world. Fear sets in. Muslims and Arabs seem dangerous. The world seems a threatening place.

In South Africa, we face increasingly racialised discourse, from all sides of the political and racial spectrum. Some people are calling for doing away with reconciliation and an increasing emphasis on racial identity and distinctiveness. These conversations elicit fear and uncertainty, prompting us to withdraw from each other into our safe comfort zones.

Jesus also experienced a world going mad. As religious leaders becoming increasingly threatened by him, his actions and his popularity, they set up traps to discredit and marginalise him. They plot to kill him. Indeed, they succeed in murdering him.

But through all this madness, Jesus does not withdraw, he is not cowed by fear, he does not avoid. Instead, Jesus continues to engage, to move towards, to step across boundaries. From where does he get this confidence in the face of considerable odds? He gets it from a confidence that his authority comes from heaven, from God. He knows that he is living out God’s will for him – to reconcile all things together within God’s family.

And so he remains steadfast. As we also need to remain steadfast. To not be cowed or afraid or marginalised. But to continue to live out the faith that we have inherited. A faith that hopes and trusts in a powerful God. A faith that engages and connects. A faith that steps across boundaries and embraces. A faith that loves.

Mark 11:27-33

Reconciliation

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South Africa, at the moment, has become a pot reaching boiling point, as racial tensions and anger mount. For some, reconciliation has become a dirty word, and for others there is fear that the reconciliation that was built up in the last 90s is under serious threat. Globally, we see similar breakdowns in relationships and rolling often violent fracturing of relationships – among the states of the former USSR, in the Middle East, in parts of Africa. And at a domestic level, we all too often experience broken and pain-filled relationships in our communities, with our neighbours and friends, and even in our families. How is it that we humans are so good at breaking fellowship?

This 20 minute message tackles these difficult issues and questions. Starting at the beginning of Genesis, I trace this origins of broken relationships: between people, with God, with the world and with ourselves. We call this ‘sin’.

Working through the First Testament, I show the many ways in which God, who created relationships and is in the business of reconciliation, worked to restore these fractures, and to build harmony and wholeness in humanity.

And then I show how Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection are the pinnacle of God’s work to redeem us, to restore us, to reconcile us.

And finally, drawing on Paul’s teachings in 2 Corinthians 5, I show how we are called to be agents of reconciliation, to join with God in bringing about reconciliation. I suggest four main ways that we can and should do this: accepting God’s offer of reconciliation with us, praying for those who have fallen out of fellowship, transforming our hearts of racism and sexism (and all the other -isms), and taking a step towards an estranged loved-one. In so doing, we build the Kingdom of God in our midst.

Living on Purpose

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Luke 13:31-33 gives us a penetrating insight into the Jesus’ understanding of living with purpose. It a master class of a life lived with intensity, rooted in both the present and the future, where personal will is aligned with Divine Will. In just two verses, Jesus shares with us a philosophy and a method for living on purpose.

This message breaks open this brief passage, showing how Jesus makes sense of his own purpose and God’s purpose for his life; how he thinks about today and tomorrow and the next day; how he understands that there can be a sequences of ultimate purposes for one’s life; for living fully in the present while also looking towards one’s future.

It is my hope that we can walk in Jesus’ footsteps, in whatever occupies our time and attention (be it formal employment, unpaid voluntary service, raising a family, or doing ministry part-time), but living on purpose, not by accident.

Blessings and joy
Adrian

The Parable of the Talents (Remixed)

Click here to listen to the MP3 of this 21-minute message.

How often have we heard a sermon on Parable of the Talents? The idea that God has bestowed talents or gifts on each of us? And that we have to use our talents or lose them? This is not a bad idea, but it is not what Jesus is saying in this parable.

In this message, I deconstruct the notion that this parable is about talents and place it where it belongs – in the metaphor of business and commerce. I put forward the idea that Jesus is inviting us to become shareholders in God’s business venture on earth – the business or mission to bring salvation to the whole cosmos. What a great opportunity, if a little daunting, to be a business partner with the Son of God!

 

Being God’s Beloved: Day 24: The Great Commission

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Yesterday and the day before we looked at two central messages of Jesus. The first, from Luke 4, spoke of God’s special love and concern for those who are poor and vulnerable, God’s desire for those who are rich and powerful to align with God’s mission and God’s rejection of vengeance. The second, from Matthew 22 and Mark 12, spoke of the deep Will of God, that we should love – love God and love each other.

Today we look at a third central message of Jesus, which is found in Matthew 28 – the last few verses of Matthew’s Gospel account of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. He writes:

“Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (Matthew 28:16-20).

This wonderful passage is called the ‘Great Commission’ and has served for many generations as the primary text mobilising evangelical missionary work.

A somewhat similar commission is found in Acts 1:8:

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus opens and closes this brief passage with grand statements about Himself. The opening words speak to tremendous cosmic power and authority that God the Father has delegated to Him. And the closing words speak to his omnipresence and eternity – His ability to be everywhere forever. Together, these remind us of the Kenotic U that we reflected on earlier this week, and specifically the top right corner of the U, which we talked about as Christ’s glorification. Having been raised from the dead and blessed by God, Jesus is now once again the King of kings and Lord of lords.

In this passage, Jesus speaks not as just the man of God that he had been during his brief time on earth, but as the Son of God. He is, indeed, a King. And he is King of the Kingdom of God or, to use Matthew’s terminology, the Kingdom of Heaven. The Greek word for ‘kingdom’, basileia, is used 51 times in Matthew, compared with just 18 times in Mark.[1] Some scholars prefer to translate basileia as ‘reign’, to emphasise not so much a territory (which ‘kingdom’ may evoke for many of us), but rather the King who reigns. For Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven was both in the future (something towards which we yearn and strive) and the present (something that is ‘near’ because Jesus is present). Wherever we find Jesus, we find the Kingdom. And because Jesus is present in Christians by the Spirit, wherever we are God’s Kingdom is present. And so we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

The Great Commission then, although not mentioning the term basileia, is nevertheless set against an extensive backdrop of the Kingdom of Heaven, which Matthew has developed over the previous 28 chapters and which Jesus’ words about authority and eternal presence reinforce. Jesus is commissioning the disciples, as He commissions us, to work in and for the Kingdom of God. This is a present work in the present Kingdom that centres on the person of Jesus Christ, but it is also work for the future, for that great and glorious Day of the Lord, when God will restore the heavens and the earth and all who dwell therein.

What is this work that Jesus commissions the disciples to do? It is to gather all people together in God’s Kingdom. Jesus commissions the disciples to populate God’s Kingdom with people of God.

Both grammatically and theologically, the central imperative verb – the primary command – is to “make disciples”. Although the word “go” comes first and appears to be an imperative just like “make disciples”, it is better understood as subordinate to “make disciples”[2] and could perhaps be translated, “As you go…” or “While you are going…” The focus is squarely on “make disciples!”

A disciple is one who follows Jesus. A disciple submits to Jesus. A disciple adopts Jesus’ values, priorities and methods. A disciple seeks to further Jesus’ mission. A disciple ultimately seeks to become like Jesus.

Jesus’ twelve disciples did not, of course, embody such idealised aspirations. However, this was their aspiration and it was towards this that Jesus mentored and guided them.

So, to make disciples means to assist and support others in their journey of becoming a follower of Christ. And Jesus provides two methods to assist in achieving this: baptising them and teaching them. For today’s reflection, I wish to focus only on teaching. It is, however, important to note that the baptism incorporates a reference to the Trinity – “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” – showing that the disciple-making work involves all the persons of the Trinity. It is important work!

The teaching that Jesus speaks of is “teaching them to obey all I have commanded you.” Sometimes we think of teaching as the imparting of intellectual knowledge – teaching leads to knowing. But in Matthew’s Gospel, teaching is far more. “Jesus teaching is an appeal to his listeners’ will, not primarily to their intellect; it is a call for a concrete decision to follow him and to submit to God’s will.”[3] The Will of God is something we reflected on yesterday, in relation to the Great Commandment. There we said that the Will of God, which is expressed in the Law, is for us to love – to love God and to love each other. Jesus said that all the Law and Prophets hang on this command (Matthew 22:40).

The Will of God appears many times in Matthew.[4] We recall it in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Jesus says of the Day of Judgement, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Matthew 18:14 expresses what is not God’s Will: “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (NSRV). In Matthew 21:28-32, two sons are contrasted. Once the father has expressed his will that they should go and work in the vineyard, the one says, “I will not” and the other, “I will, Sir”.

Being a disciple means adopting the Will of God and putting it into practice. The Will of God is for us to love God and to love others, including the unlovely. Jesus is thus commissioning the disciples and us to cultivate a Kingdom in which everyone loves God and each other, not only in the privacy of their hearts, but also in their actions and interactions. Yesterday, we saw the correspondence between God’s love for us and our love for God and each other. Today, we see that Jesus wants us to spread this message to everyone.

This ‘everyone’ is expressed in the Great Commission as to “all nations”. Jesus really does mean all nations. This is good news for everyone. It is not just good news for the Jews, as it was in the Old Testament and, to some degree, even in Jesus’ ministry. It is also not good news just for Gentiles, as if the Jews have been cut off and forgotten. Rather, it is good news for every person and every community of people.

We recall God’s passion for all peoples in the commissioning of Abraham in our reflections on Day 6. The Great Commission is not a new commission. It is merely a re-commissioning. God had previously commissioned Abraham to bring God’s light to all peoples. Then this commission was passed on to all Israel. And now to all followers of Christ. God’s love has always been and will always be universal. God desires the salvation of the entire human population. And so Peter writes, “[The Lord] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9b).

Today and over the previous two days we have reflected on three central messages of Jesus, perhaps even the three central passages that speak to Jesus’ mission. And we have seen a common thread through all of them. The Lukan Manifesto recounts God’s love for the poor and vulnerable, the Great Commandment concerns God’s intention that we should love God and love each other, and the Great Commission is a call to guide all people into a loving relationship with God.

It is no coincidence that all three messages centre on God’s love and our consequent love for God and each other. The messages all centre on God’s love, because love is at the centre of God. More specifically, love is the centre of God’s Will. It is God’s good desire and intention to love us and for us to love God and for us to love each other. And so, whenever Jesus speaks about what is most important, it will be about love.

Meditation for the Day

As a lover of God, we are called to draw other people into the love of God. It is God’s will that all should know God’s love. How are you doing in participating with God in this mission?

Prayer for the Day

Your love for me is wonderful, O Lord my God. Help me to shine forth this love in the way I interact with people around me. Help me to draw them to you, making them followers of your Son.

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[1] Bosch, p. 70.

[2] France, pp. 1114-1115.

[3] Bosch, p. 66.

[4] These examples were identified by Bosch, p. 67.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 6: Abraham’s Commission

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Abraham is an important figure in history. He is the father of three faith traditions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He is held up, in both Old and New Testaments, as a great example of faith. The New Testament letter to the Hebrews, in particular, encourages us to follow Abraham’s example of faithfulness.

We first meet Abraham in Genesis 12, where he encounters God for the first time. This is the calling of Abraham (still, at that stage, named ‘Abram’), when god calls Abraham to leave his home country, indeed to leave his life, and set out to a land that God had chosen for him. God says to him:

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;

I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;

and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

(Genesis 12: 2-3)

See how the word ‘blessing’ is used five times in these two verses. Once it is about God blessing Abraham, once it is about God blessing other people, once it is about others blessing Abraham and twice it is about Abraham blessings others. This is a real sharing of blessing! ‘Bless’ is, in Hebrew, barak .[1]

In the Ancient Near East (the cultures and groups surrounding the Jewish people during Old Testament times) the concept of ‘blessing’ was almost always from Divine to human – God blessed us, we did not bless God. And for these people and the Jewish people, securing God’s blessing for oneself personally or for one’s nation was paramount. God’s blessing would bring about everything one hoped for: abundant crops, success in battle, fertility, longevity, wealth, power and happiness. The more powerful the god, of course, the more potent the blessing. And a blessing could be passed on to one’s progeny.

We remember, in Genesis 1:22, how God blessed the living creatures. And then in verse 28, he blessed the first humans, saying “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground”. God’s blessing transfers authority and right, status and role. It is almost as if God imparts something of Godself to humanity when blessing us.

It is thus surely clear from this passage in Genesis 12, that God is making a great promise to Abraham. We can see this with the five uses of “I will”. God asserts that God will bless Abraham, by making him into a great nation, by blessing him, by making his name great, by blessing those who bless him and by cursing those who curse him. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). If we had to set this to music, we’d use the tune “I’ll stand by you”.

Such promises convey a central message: God loves Abraham. If we had to condense this passage into just a short phrase, wouldn’t that be appropriate? A little while ago my father wrote to me, “I kill da bull for you!” I interpreted that not as a threat against bulls or an expression of pent up aggression. No! It was an expression of love for me – how far he would go to protect and champion me as his son. Similarly, here in Genesis, God perceives what Abraham really longs for (a people, descendants, respect, land) and says, “I love you so much, I will give you these things that your heart desires.” This is, first and foremost, a love poem.

Can you imagine encountering God and hearing God say these things to you? God says, “I love you so much, I will give you these things that your heart desires”. Perhaps these are promises that we can and should claim for ourselves, as children of Abraham. It is God’s promise not only to Abraham as an individual, but also to his children and his children’s children, the ages, down to we who follow in his faithful footsteps.

But lest we get stuck in the wonderfulness of God loving us, let us remember that three of the five uses of blessing are targeted at the nations, not at Abraham – one of these by God and two by Abraham. The blessing that God gives to Abraham is not intended to stop with Abraham. Abraham is not supposed to get fat on God’s blessing. Rather Abraham will be a conduit or a channel of God’s blessing, passing it on to the nations, to “all peoples on earth”.

Some years ago, Scott Wesley Brown wrote a great Gospel song called “Blessed to be a blessing”, which I love to sing. But I think the theology of the title might be a bit problematic. Genesis 12 does not convey the conditional sense that the song title does. God does not say “I will bless you so that you will be a blessing”. Rather, God says “I will bless you and you will be a blessing”. The blessing that Abraham receives is given whole-heartedly and fully to Abraham himself, because God loves him. Period. And in addition, inevitably, people will be blessed because of Abraham.

This is important! God’s blessing of us, God’s love for us, is not conditional. It is given without strings attached, out of God’s overabundance of love. God loves because God loves. And we can receive it without terms and conditions – no small print.

But in addition to this, God’s love is for everyone, not only for us. The well of love from which God draws has no limit, no bottom, no end. God is able to draw infinitely to bless us for eternity with unimaginable love. And God desires that love to reach everyone. And Abraham was that channel of love. After he died, he passed that blessing on to his children, and to their children, and eventually to greatest of the Sons of David, Jesus Christ, who truly became a blessing for all peoples. And Christ commissions us to continue to be a blessing to all nations, passing on the love of God to everyone we encounter.

It is a sad truth, I think, that the Old Testament has more stories about the nations being attacked by the people of God or excluded from the blessing of God than being blessed with the blessing of God. It seems that Israel never quite grasped that they had a commission to bless all people. The notion of being ‘chosen’ and ‘set apart’ went to their heads. The blessing was kept and protected. Like Gollum’s “my precious.”

But repeatedly throughout the pages of the Old Testament, the idea of a blessing to be passed on comes up. We hear is in a different form in Exodus 19:4-6, where God says through Moses, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The first sentence speaks of God’s blessing – God’s liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt. This great and national blessing is the cornerstone of Jewish theology and spirituality – it is the event in Jewish history that most powerfully demonstrates God’s tremendous love for the nation of Israel. The second sentence stresses their chosen-ness, though here we hear a condition – if you obey me fully and keep my covenant.

But it is the last verse that is most important for us now. God emphasises first that the whole earth belongs to God. The earth is God’s beloved creation, a most cherished object. Nevertheless, God chooses to appoint Israel as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. This echoes yesterday’s reflection on Adam being commissioned to tend and care for God’s beloved garden. It’s the same pattern, but on a larger scale. Just as Adam was hired to love the garden, Israel was hired to love the nations.

Israel is to be a “kingdom of priests”. The term ‘priest’ is not used in many churches these days, but in the Anglican Church we continue to use this term to refer to our minister or pastor. It conveys a sense that this is a person who mediates God to us. This is not to imply that we cannot or do not encounter God directly through Christ Jesus! We each have full access to the presence of God. But it does imply, particularly for those who have not yet encountered God, that the priest’s role is to reveal God to them, to be the embodiment of God for them. So a kingdom of priests would mean that anyone could look at the nation of Israel and see God, experience God’s blessing, know God’s love.

Israel is also to be a “holy nation”. On the one hand, holy here means set apart for God so that the nation is separate and pure, not tainted by the pollution of the world. And it also means set apart for God to do God’s specific work. So, a holy nation will be one that is not so much aloof and standoffish, but one that that is invested in doing God’s work in God’s world. And what is that work? Is the priestly work of revealing, mediating, channelling God’s love, God’s blessing to all people.

Peter picks up this language in 1 Peter 2:9, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

There is a long history in the Bible of royal priests and holy nations whose job it was to bless the world by revealing God’s love to the world. It starts with Adam, becomes well-defined in Abraham, struggles for centuries with Israel, and climaxes in Jesus Christ.

After Jesus’ ascension, this job is handed to all those who are known and loved and blessed by God. If you have accepted Jesus into your life, then you are known, loved and blessed. And you have a commission, a job. To bless the world, to love those around you, to be the presence of God in a hungry neighbourhood. God says, “I will bless you, and you will be a blessing”.

Meditation for the Day

God loves you, blesses you. Reflect on that today. And reflect also that you will be a blessing to others, will reveal God’s love to others. Today.

Prayer for the Day

Loving God who calls the faithful, bless me in my endeavours today, and inspire me to pass on that blessing to those I encounter, through a generous heart, warm words and helpful hands.

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[1] VanGemeren, W. (Ed.). (1997). New international dictionary of Old Testament theology and exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.